Understanding The Role Gender Plays In Determining The Dynamics Of A Conflict | HART International Women’s Day Blog Series

1 March 2015

This blog, by Jack Lindsay, is the second in HART’s Blog Series for International Women’s Day 2015. Find out more about the blog series here. Read yesterday’s post on women in civil society here

The realms of gender analysis and conflict and security studies have long been regarded as distinctly separate by both academics and strategists alike. Increasingly, however, it has become apparent that conflict cannot be completely understood without an acknowledgement of the role gender plays in both affecting it and being affected by it.

A state – centric state of mind

Traditional analyses of international conflict and security issues largely ignored the interaction between gender and warfare. The only actor that deemed worthy of study was the state. Conflict was understood to be an inter-state affair and the bulk of analysis focused on military strategy and the decisions sovereign states took to ensure their own security in an anarchic world system. States were thought to be the most primary actor, acting competitively and in their own self – interest, clashing with other states when these interests clashed. Of course, it’s arguable that this state – centric view of international relations wasn’t merely a Realist view of the world as it is but a reflection of the mostly male dominated fields of academia, military strategising and policymaking and the ways they were, as men, socialised to see the world (Sjoberg, L, 2013).

From gender-blind to gender-mainstreaming

Nevertheless, the last two decades have witnessed an increased recognition that the state is far from the only significant actor in matters of war and peace. From the stateless trans-continental army of Al – Qaeda militants who, in a few hours, managed to strike a fatal blow against the military and economic heart of the world’s sole superpower state in September 2001, to the role of private companies such as Blackwater in carrying out extrajudicial killings of civilians in U.S occupied Iraq, it’s clear that the state is no longer the primary actor it once was thought to be. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the idea that it’s the state’s interests which takes precedence over all else has been challenged by the emergence of an ever-growing and diverse global civil society and human rights agenda. The emergence of humanitarian intervention has, on the surface at least, made the rights of individual citizens more important in the eyes of the international community than the interests of a state which may deny them.

From Malala Yousafzai winning the Nobel Peace Prize last year for her work in chronicling the life of schoolgirls under Taliban rule in north west Pakistan, to Angelina Jolie launching the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI) in zones of conflict alongside the UK government, gender issues have begun to seize the attention of global media as well as becoming a crucial part in understanding the nature of conflict today. This is the concept of gender mainstreaming and it is starting to take hold.

In understanding conflict through a gender lens, we are better equipped to help those caught up in violent conflict. Violence against women and girls is endemic in all patriarchal societies, and in times of conflict this is exacerbated. Historically, however, sexual violence in armed conflict has been downplayed and de-politicised. Although there are international laws in place to protect civilians from war crimes, sexual violence and weaponized rape has arguably long been discounted from these protections. Yet the numbers are staggering, and well documented. In the breakaway Darfur region of Sudan, there have been an estimated 10,000 rapes of women and girls every year since 2003. Unfortunately, Sudanese women and girls aren’t alone. With over 140 million girls living in states made fragile by armed conflict, they too are at risk from sexual violence. In gendering conflict we are able to recognise that war rape isn’t an inevitable feature of sending men to warfare or an isolated act carried out against an individual devoid of any political context. Sexual violence is now rightly recognised as a powerful weapon used as an act of physical and psychological warfare to demoralise and degrade entire communities. A notable feature of modern warfare is how little civilians are shielded from the horrors of the battlefront, many finding themselves unwittingly caught up in the crossfire on the frontline. Comprising only 10% of casualties a century ago, today the figure is 90%. In gendering conflict it becomes clear how, behind this figure, it is women who often bear the brunt of this.

The long running conflict in Uganda between the government and Lord Resistance Army (LRA) has been notorious for the impact it has had on the civilian population. Human rights atrocities have been carried out with “widespread impunity”. Before 2005, an estimated 75,000 children were abducted and forced to serve as combatants and sexual slaves. Although this eventually garnered a lot of media attention in 2012 thanks to the viral success of the Invisible Children video, there has been markedly less coverage of the long term impact this abduction has had on girls in particular. One report found that around 85% of girls who managed to escape their captivity and get to the Gulu Trauma Centre for former abductees had contracted sexual diseases, and that’s just one centre in a region wracked by conflict. Due to the longstanding stigma of rape, and the prevalence of victim-blaming, many of these girls and women find themselves suffering in silence and reluctant to seek aid. However, sexual violence is only one way in which women are predominantly affected by warfare. Of the 42 million forced to flee their homes worldwide, 80% are women and children. Many of these refugees find themselves having to live in camps that have poor sanitation, with little access to clean drinking water and health facilities. By examining conflict through a gender lens we can therefore see how it’s women and girls who are often the hardest hit of civilians populations.

Women and girls as armed combatants

However, women aren’t just passive victims of conflicts, they can also take an active participatory role as combatants. One study found that girls have fought in 38 armed conflicts from 1990 to 2003 while the use of female suicide bombers in terrorist attacks, like the recent spate in Northern Nigeria last month, have been dominating the headlines for at least 30 years. Female involvement has amounted to at least a quarter of all suicide bombings in roughly the same period. Nevertheless, there is a high degree of coercion and indoctrination involved, and this can’t be overstated enough. It is feared, for example, that some of the female suicide bombers in Nigeria were the same girls as those kidnapped by Boko Haram last year. In the light of such high profile acts of terror, it’s worth examining why females are used as combatants in armed conflict, especially in the face of gender stereotyping, and, coercion aside, why they would voluntarily take up arms.

One reason is purely tactical. Perhaps due to the traditional gender roles ascribed to women as the weaker and fairer sex, women combatants are less suspicious and can therefore be better equipped for covert operations like infiltrating enemy lines. A 2011 study by the U.S. Military found that 65% of assassinations carried out by terrorist groups were done by female suicide bombers, supporting Martin Ewi’s (a researcher with South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies)assertion that using female suicide bombers “is the most dramatic strategy that an organisation can use. It becomes easier to penetrate targets because we are less suspicious about women,”. In more conservative societies, women combatants can slip through security more easily due to a reluctance of the usually male personnel to body search a woman. Additionally, women are thought to be able to conceal weapons more easily by wearing baggy clothing and feigning pregnancy.

The political and economic marginalisation women face in a patriarchal society at least partly explains why women end up involved in an armed conflict, particularly when the conflict is exacerbating gender – based hardship. For example, in the northerly region where Boko Haram has been using female suicide bombers only 1 in 20 girls complete high school and 50% are married before the age of 15. Faced with hardly any economic and educational opportunities, becoming a combatant can be one of the few ways in which women are able to improve their social status. This is especially true in the case of religious fundamentalist groups, where female combatants are able to achieve martyrdom in what is an otherwise sexist environment. In the words of one Nigerian security analyst, Balla Abdullahi Wase, they are able to “graduate from being helpers who cook and clean to being bombers”.

Be it through militants exploiting traditional gender stereotypes or the ways in which fewer opportunities leave women with less choice, by highlighting these reasons we can see the role patriarchy plays in driving women to take up arms in a conflict situation.

Conflict: Gendering the causes and the resolutions

Some would argue that the nature of conflict itself is inherently genderised. Socially constructed norms associate male masculinity with competition, aggression, power and control, suggesting why men make up the majority of combatants in virtually all wars. It also helps to explain how boys and men too can be victims of sexual violence, rape being used as a weapon to humiliate and subjugate their sense of manhood. Conversely, women have traditionally been raised to be more nurturing, cooperative and aversive to violence, leading to calls for their to be a greater inclusion of them in post war negotiations and peacekeeping. If men are forced to be the aggressors, as this theory contends, then can women make better peacebuilders?

Only recently featuring on the U.N’s agenda with the adoption of Resolution 1325 and its call for gender parity in U.N peacekeeping forces as well as greater focus on gender – based issues in post conflict reconstruction, the role women can play in promoting a sustainable peace is still largely overlooked. With recruitment left to the individual member states, women still only constitute 3% of military personnel and 10% of police personnel in all peacekeeping missions. It’s this lack of women’s representation which arguably makes it harder for gender – based issues to be dealt with in post – conflict situations, when women and girls struggle to have their needs met. In Northern Uganda following the war between the government and the LRA, gender – blind reintegration programmes for returning combatants inadequately addressed the needs of girls who had joined the LRA and were brutally treated, forced into a marital role. Subjected to sexual violence, many became pregnant and gave birth as well as being at a higher risk of STD infection. Because they didn’t play an active combatative role, reintegration efforts largely passed them by. This was in spite of the social and psychological difficulties they had in dealing with stigma from their communities, rejecting their babies as “Kony’s children”. Indeed, few of these women knew next to nothing about Resolution 1325 and the efforts of the UN to target gender based discrimination in conflict situations. This highlights how gendering conflict has yet to make the leap from academia and elite policy-making circles to those working in the field and those women and girls affected most by conflict.

Making Gender-Mainstreaming More Mainstream

Although we are gradually moving from a genderblind to a more gender-aware analysis of conflict and security issues, there is still a long way to go. The greater inclusion of gender as an analytical tool for academics and strategists, and also in policy-making matters for state and non-state actors alike ultimately helps us to better understand the dynamics of a conflict, be it the way in which the violence and disorder impacts on women and girls, or by putting a much-needed spotlight on the motives that drive women to become violently involved in a conflict. Nevertheless, such an understanding is only a first step and, when it comes to the ways in which women and girls disproportionately suffer in times of conflict, much more needs to be done to move from the theoretical into reality and to turn greater awareness into greater action.


Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

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